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Why Do Government Officials Believe in the Goodness of Bad Policy? Based on this article. Dan Klein, Professor of Economics, George Mason University dklein@gmu.edu. Why do bad policies prevail and persist?. According to most all economists: Agricultural subsidies

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why do government officials believe in the goodness of bad policy based on this article

Why Do Government Officials Believe in the Goodness of Bad Policy?Based on this article

Dan Klein, Professor of Economics,George Mason Universitydklein@gmu.edu

why do bad policies prevail and persist
Why do bad policies prevail and persist?
  • According to most all economists:
    • Agricultural subsidies
    • Restrictions on international trade
    • Rent control
  • According to enlightened economists:
    • Min wage, FDA restrictions, drug war, . . . most government interventions
one kind of answer cynicism dishonesty greed anti social self interest
One kind of answer: Cynicism, dishonesty, greed, anti-social self-interest
  • That is, villainy
  • Much scholarship takes this view: Politics as institutionalized lying. Much of “public choice” projects this view. “Rent seeking”, “capture”. George Stigler tended to push this view.
  • But when you meet these “villains” face to face, you often feel that they are sincere and even quite decent.
david hume
David Hume:
  • “Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest . . . It is, therefore, a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave: Though at the same time, it appears somewhat strange, that a maxim should be true in politics, which is false in fact.”
alternative interpretation
Alternative interpretation
  • They are systematically wrong, not necessarily evil.
  • But that raises the challenge: Why would they persist in error? If they are honest and decent, why aren’t they prepared to learn that 2 + 2 does not equal 5?
it is a question of culture
It is a question of culture
  • The question can be asked about general popular opinion, leading us into big think about our human psychology, evolution, and our cultural institutions.
  • Here I want to narrow the question:

Why do government officials believe in the goodness of bad policy?

several mechanisms at work
Several mechanisms at work
  • Self-sorting
  • Screening
  • Belief plasticity and lock-in
self sorting
  • Sometimes you hold prior beliefs that conflict with those of the community.
  • What are your options?
when your beliefs conflict
When your beliefs conflict
  • Options:
    • depart the community
    • change the culture of the community to suit your beliefs
    • play the cynic by getting on in the community and supporting its goals while privately rejecting the culture
    • remain within the community but openly voice a dissenting view
    • embrace the culture of the community.
self sorting what s attractive to you
Self-sorting: What’s attractive to you?
  • Think about these four options:
    • change the culture of the community to suit your beliefs
    • play the cynic by getting on in the community and supporting its goals while privately rejecting the culture
    • remain within the community but openly voice a dissenting view—a nice quote from Hayek
    • embrace the culture of the community.
screening how much will they tolerate before expelling you
Screening: How much will they tolerate before expelling you?
  • The options again:
    • change the culture of the community to suit your beliefs
    • play the cynic by getting on in the community and supporting its goals while privately rejecting the culture
    • remain within the community but openly voice a dissenting view
    • embrace the culture of the community.
self sorting and screening interact
Self-sorting and screening interact
  • Your peace of mind is related to the hazard of being disliked and being thrown out. The two sides of the tension tend to reinforce each other, creating doubt, discomfort, and acrimony.
  • The most likely result: Departing the community
what if you don t have prior beliefs
What if you don’t have prior beliefs?
  • Firm prior beliefs give rise to self‑sorting and screening.
  • But very often a person comes to an organization without definite opinions on matters relating to the organization's purposes. In this case beliefs often adapt to the prevailing culture.
you tend to adopt the beliefs that help serve your purposes
You tend to adopt the beliefs that help serve your purposes
  • Your purposes depend on your situation.
  • Your situation includes your job, your work life, and your career.
  • Individuals would believe different ideas if their situation were different.
  • Belief structures are plastic: They are affected by the heat and pressure of everyday experience.
h l mencken on belief plasticity
H.L. Mencken on belief plasticity
  • “The influenze epidemic of 1919, though it had an enormous mortality in the United States and was, in fact, the worst epidemic since the Middle Ages, is seldom mentioned, and most Americans have apparently forgotten it. This is not surprising. The human mind always tries to expunge the intolerable from memory, just as it tries to conceal it while current.”
… Mencken
  • “[C]onscription in both cases [World Wars I and II] involved the virtual enslavement of multitudes of young Americans who objected to it. But having been forced to succumb, most of them sought to recover their dignity by pretending that they succumbed willingly and even eagerly. Such is the psychology of the war veteran. He goes in under duress, and the harsh usage to which he is subjected invades and injures his ego, but once he is out he begins to think of himself as a patriot and a hero. The veterans of all American wars have resisted stoutly any effort to examine realistically either the circumstances of their service or the body of idea underlying the cause they were forced to serve. Man always seeks to rationalize his necessities -- and, whenever possible, to glorify them.”
… Mencken
  • “I was once told by a Catholic bishop that whenever a priest comes to his ordinary with the news that he has begun to develop doubts about this or that point of doctrine, the ordinary always assumes as a matter of fact that a woman is involved. It is almost unheard of, however, for a priest to admit candidly that he is a party to a love affair: he always tries to conceal it by ascribing his deserting to theological reasons. The bishop said that the common method of dealing with such situations is to find out who the lady is, and then transfer the priest to some remote place, well out of her reach.”
… Mencken
  • “Men always try to make virtues of their weaknesses. Fear of death and fear of life both become piety.”
social psychology
Social psychology
  • “Truths are us”
  • Commitment and self-consistency
truths are us
“Truths are us”
  • People rely on social cues
  • Examples:
    • television producers use canned laughter
    • bartenders "salt" their tip jars with dollar bills
    • evangelical preachers seed their audience with enthusiasts
    • hundreds of people can line up in orderly and willful fashion to partake of lethal poison, as in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978
truths are us21
Truths are “Us”
  • If “social proof” has power, certainly it can do much to reinforce the "normal" beliefs and practices of duly created government agencies.
social cues by immersion
Social cues by immersion
  • The Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Four steps. "Potential recruits are first contacted individually and invited to come to a 2-day, weekend workshop. These workshops are then followed by a 7-day workshop, a 12-day workshop, and membership".
  • Now compare that to employment within the US Department of Agriculture. Taboos and superstitions abound there, too!
self consistency and commitment
Self-consistency and commitment
  • Another principle of social psychology:

People fancy themselves wise and consistent beings. Once a person has taken steps down a certain path, he is receptive to information that support the initial decision, and he tends to turn away from information that discredits it.

adam smith on commitment and self consistency
Adam Smith on commitment and self-consistency
  • “The opinion which we entertain of our own character depends entirely on our judgments concerning our past conduct. It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves, that we often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavourable.”
example medical licensing board
Example: Medical licensing board
  • The rise of an individual to the state medical licensing board.

Such a person must first be a prominent member of the profession. Then he would find a position in the professional association. After gaining the confidence of influential people in the establishment, he joins the state licensing board.

  • He is enveloped by the inner culture of the profession. Outside viewpoints are cleaved away. Dissenting pleas from powerless outsiders are politely dismissed and privately derogated.
it goes for private organizations too but
It goes for private organizations, too, but . . .
  • It is far more dangerous in government.
  • Govt organizations have the most far-reaching and peremptory power.
  • Government officials wield incomparably greater power than do businesspeople.
  • Think of FDA reviewers who routinely make decisions that prevent suffering individuals from being helped by new drugs.
let s think of cultural systems like technological systems
Let’s think of cultural systems like technological systems
  • We may likens beliefs to technological standards, like:
    • One railroad gauge versus another
    • Inches, feet, miles vs. metric system
    • Qwerty vs. other keyboard layouts
    • Microsoft vs. Mac
  • Economists have a fascinating theory of “path-dependence” and “lock-in”
paul david s theory of lock in
Paul David’s theory of “lock-in”
  • The idea is that a bad system might get locked-in, and that we need the government to get us out of it, and onto a better system.
  • “market failure”
  • As an argument for government intervention in technological standards, Paul David’s theory has been really nicely countered by many fine economists, notably Stephen Margolis and Stan Liebowitz. See, for example, their great article “Fable of the Keys,” debunking the myth that the Dvorak keyboard is superior to QWERTY.
but as a theory of culture i like the lock in theory
But as a theory of culture, I like the lock-in theory
  • Particularly when it comes to the culture of government agencies
  • So here I draw on the authority of Paul David
paul david path dependence arises from three features
Paul David: Path dependence arises from three features:
  • 1) quasi-irreversibility, or one’s inability to fully recoup the costs of investment in the technology if one attempts to switch to a different technology (sunk costs)
    • Karl Kraus: “Who is going to cast out an error to which he has given birth and replace it with an adopted truth?”
paul david s theory of lock in32
Paul David’s theory of lock-in
  • 2) technical interrelatedness, or the interrelation of one’s use of the technology with its use by others: using the technology is more valuable the more that others also use the technology.
      • In fact, being off the standard can be disastrous!!
paul david s theory of lock in33
Paul David’s theory of lock-in
  • 3) economies of scale, or the increasing facility with which new users or uses are added to the system as the system of users gets larger.
    • Social cues are more pervasive and convergent the more dominant the cultural system.
all three features fit organizational culture very well
All three features fit organizational culture very well!
  • Especially in government organizations
  • Thus, self-sorting, screening, and belief plasticity/lock-in all lead us to the following expectation:

Govt organizations will exhibit a culture that is quite uniform, inert, and impervious.

the genealogy of organizational culture
The Genealogy of Organizational Culture
  • Path dependence tells us that the enduring outcome may have very adventitious origins, so in that sense there may be no way to generalize about what sort of equilibrium results.
  • But the consideration of origins and of certain incentives that operate irrespective of cultural specifics may permit some generalization.
self exaltation principle
Self-exaltation principle
  • Everyone wants more comfort and wealth.
  • Almost everyone wants recognition, prestige, eminence, and power.
  • We want a sense of significance, importance, potency.
  • We feel important when we can believe a story in which we get to play the hero.
  • We want to take credit for both the good and the greatness achieved.
self exaltation will mean glorification of the government agency
Self-exaltation will mean glorification of the government agency
  • Government officials find comfort and prestige in their position. They will come to find legitimacy as well.
  • They like to see their agency's actions as the cause of achievement, and themselves the cause of the agency's actions.
  • Self-exaltation is universal enough that we can expect it to be one of the forces shaping cultural development -- that means the pursuit of expanded power and a willful reluctance to surrender it.
another basis for generalization the founding of the organization
Another basis for generalization: The founding of the organization
  • The founding of the agency gives a cultural foothold to certain theories and goals that influence the belief system into the future.
  • That founding was a story about how the government needed to override laissez-faire. The founding theory was one of laissez-faire failing.
  • Those who favor laissez-faire and doubt government are likely to see badness persisting in the cultural systems, since those agencies were founded to abridge laissez-faire.
example of the founding principle
Example of the founding principle
  • Chubb & Moe on the public school establishment:

"Although traditionally they have tried to portray themselves as nonpolitical experts pursuing the greater good, they are in fact a powerful constellation of special interests dedicated to hierarchical control and the formalization of education."

thus we have a basis for predicting the path
Thus, we have a basis for predicting the path
  • The self-exaltation principle
  • The founding principle

Both suggest that the uniform cultural within the government organization will be interventionist and collectivist, not classical liberal.

thomas jefferson saw cultural challenge
Thomas Jefferson saw cultural challenge:
  • “It would be dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights; that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism. Free government is founded in jealousy and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.”
concluding remarks
Concluding remarks
  • We do have theories of why bad policy persists.
  • The bad cultural is a self-supporting system. The frame of a teepee is a set of poles forming an inverted cone. They support each other. They are not independently supported.
can things get better
Can things get better?
  • Maybe. What sustains the bad cultures is insulation from criticism. New communications might empower enlightenment.
another consolation
Another consolation?
  • Even if it does not manage to improve government policy, enlightenment is a good in its own right.
  • By virtue of communications, a subculture is more easily sustained, developed, and enjoyed.
  • Today, it is easier to breathe enlightened culture.